Just under a year later, the perception of one match — contested between two World Champions at the prime of their respective careers in a tournament that for both was seen as a mere warm-up — can still carry significance. All it requires is isolating a couple of variables that enunciate the context necessary to do so.
A lot of Greco fans (even in the United States!) perked up last August when three-time World champ Frank Staebler (GER) checked in for his home country’s summer Grand Prix back down at 67 kilograms, the Olympic weight category in which he first made his definitive mark. The reasoning was clear immediately: with the 2019 Worlds then on the immediate horizon, Staebler wanted to take a test drive. He hadn’t competed below 71 kilos since the Rio Olympics, and a tournament at home offering a two-kilogram weight allowance represented the perfect opportunity.
Those ’19 Worlds were important. Even with memories which may now appear hazy due to the eventual shutdown of the original Olympic Year brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, there is no forgetting the pressure-cooker of a “qualifying Worlds”.
We saw it all over again last year. Countless athletes, many of whom beholden to tremendous repute, squeezing into one of the six Olympic weight classes in hopes of placing in the top-6, which would thereby earn licenses for Tokyo on behalf of their nations. A World Championships with Olympic qualifying hanging in the balance is international wrestling’s version of “musical chairs”: too many competitors, not enough spots, and no one really knows when the melody will come to an abrupt halt.
Staebler, certainly, was not preparing in earnest for Nur-Sultan ’19 with such measly expectations, wishing and wanting to somehow crack his way into the top-6. That’s not how he views competition. He always believes he is going to win. That, along with a driving commitment to offense, are most responsible for his remarkable success.
But the same can be said for Artem Surkov (RUS). Now a three-time medalist with gold to his name (’18), Surkov is every bit the competitor Staebler is. What’s more, he is a classical Russian who actually likes to attack on the feet and not just wait around for par terre (though post-’18 rule change he has become a bit more measured, perhaps predictably).
Also important to note is that during Staebler’s absence from 66/67 kilograms, Surkov stayed completely put. He has never ventured north, but rather, put 67 on lockdown to the tune of those aforementioned World medals in conjunction with two European Championship titles and one bronze.
STAEBLER VS. SURKOV — 2019 GERMAN GRAND PRIX FINAL
These two do not share a prolonged history with one another, aside from a decently-long list of common opponents. Prior to their meetup in the ’19 German GP final, the last time Staebler and Surkov danced was back in ’16…in the German GP final. On that day four years ago, Staebler got the nod 2-1. One month later, Staebler was downed by eventual Olympic champ Davor Stefanek (SRB) in Rio — while Surkov was on the bench in favor of Islambek Albiev.
Staebler didn’t exactly cruise to the final against Surkov last summer. Pavel Liakh (BLR) had provided a rough go of it in what wound up one of the event’s most exciting matches. Not that you would say Staebler was seriously threatened in that bout. He knew how and when to turn on, as is custom. A great match to watch in its own right.
Here, Surkov and Staebler immediately began pecking at each other. The German was (and is) much more of a pace-setter type and very, very aggressive as he clawed for wrists and forearms — but from a distance. And that’s the key for Staebler. Unlike Surkov and most European Seniors, Staebler is not all that interested in engaging a tight pummel. Instead, his goal is to create a rhythm only he can negotiate, and then pop for one of those patented arm drags that has yielded more than just a few takedowns throughout his illustrious career.
But early on, those flinging chops designed to negotiate drags or body clearances were met by Surkov sticking to the basics looking for his righty underhook. Staebler reeled a pair of drags that were swallowed up in short order because Surkov swam his hips in without failing to remain committed to the right side. In fact, it was Staebler who received the first-period passive ding, surprisingly enough (video below).
Staebler’s strategy often necessitates a little while to unfold. His nonstop — yet consistently crisp — movement is designed to equally open up scoring opportunities and wear down opponents. If he cannot spark a takedown sequence via a series of mind-bending, hand-checking setups, he is still keeping a tempo that is difficult for others to manage. Dortmund an August ago was no different. Surkov had just begun to sag a little towards the end of the first period and Staebler made him pay for it. Only :02 were available on the clock. That’s it. More than enough time for a dazzling leap-behind reach-around that stole all of the bout’s momentum.
Staebler’s 2-1 advantage heading into the second felt like a wider margin because of what could come next. Greco-Roman’s rule-set, which currently includes a maximum of two passivity/par terre chances (one in each period), lends itself to what is usually a high degree of predictability. It is not necessarily supposed to be this way. Both wrestlers are not guaranteed ordered par terre. But — officials still have a habit of going 1-for-1 when calling passives. Thus, it was not exactly a shock to see Surkov rung up haflway through the second frame, and even less so due to Staebler’s steady workrate.
As sure as a sunrise, Staebler locked around Surkov for his sidelift. After a brief struggle dampening his position — and adjusting his left leg to clear Surkov’s left leg — Staebler was able to generate the punch needed to bank an additional four points. At 7-1 with 1:44 remaining, the match was not yet complete.
Just the scoring was.
Surkov was spent. Done for. He had gamely dug back in after the reset but was by then a non-threatening entity. Staebler continued to dig at the wrists, cutting and darting in and out, and forcing Surkov to plod through each exchange. They were operating at different speeds from the last minute of the first period onward with Staebler never once slowing down even a little bit. Few wrestlers observe a pace this high.
Even fewer can keep up with one.
(The telling end of match sequence can be viewed below.)
What Did It Actually Mean?
Surkov went on to earn silver at the World Championships while Staebler placed third. Both fell to gold medalist Ismael Borrero Molina (CUB, world #1), who collected his third World-level title counting the ’16 Olympics. Both accomplished the all-important mission of qualifying 67 kilograms for their nations in advance of Tokyo, as well.
Which is all another way of saying that, as far as immediate implications are concerned, not much. Staebler and Surkov did not cross paths in Nur-Sultan, nor have they competed in the same event (in the same weight category) since.
None of that matters, however.
What does is an appreciation of commitment to the moment. This is but a snapshot of Staebler’s generational ability to coax fellow top-flight competitors into the kind of battles they have no hope of winning. First is the conditioning; then it’s the myriad setups; and eventually, ice is broken and so is the opposition. That has been the pattern. It is not hard to understand, just to solve.
Surkov, 27, is among the great lightweights of this era and may very well hang around until Paris ’24, provided both he and the Russian Federation agree on his candidacy. But Staebler — who turned 31 in June — is likely to walk away following Tokyo. And if he indeed does, it won’t be the World accolades alone that come to mind when his name is brought up. It will also be matches like this one, when the only point to prove was how much more he wants it than the other guy.
Not a bad way to be remembered.